Trump’s endorsement is sought-after prize in Alabama senate race

Mark Niquette

Former President Donald Trump is looming over the Republican primary to replace Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, with at least two contenders vying to demonstrate their fealty and win his coveted endorsement.

Trump won the reliably Republican state in 2016 and 2020 by more than 25 percentage points, and the candidates believe his blessing will still carry the heft they need to win the nomination in the race.

In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ark., speaks in Washington, at a rally in support of President Donald Trump called the "Save America Rally."

Republican Representative Mo Brooks, who spoke at the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol, is expected to announce his bid for the seat on Monday at the Bullet and Barrel Indoor Shooting Range in Huntsville. He will be accompanied by former White House adviser Stephen Miller, a leading architect of the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policy and former aide to onetime Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.

In this Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 file photo, U.S. Ambassador to Slovenia Lynda Blanchard, left, presents Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban with gifts during Slovenian Heritage Night before an NBA basketball game.

GOP candidate Lynda Blanchard, Trump’s ambassador to Slovenia, held a fund-raiser for her Senate campaign last week at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in an active bid to win his nod.

Shelby, 86, a six-term senator, announced in February he would retire from the Senate when his term ends, creating an open seat in the 2022 election. It’s one of several GOP Senate seats coming open next year.

In this Sept. 24, 2020 file photo, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., speaks during the Senate's Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Endorsements generally haven’t mattered much, but this is just another way in which Trump has altered U.S. politics. No political figure has inspired such loyalty and passion in Alabama since Governor George Wallace at the apex of his political career in the 1960s, said Jess Brown, professor emeritus at Athens State University.

“As of today, the die-hard Trump loyalists, they rule the roost in terms of voting in an Alabama Republican primary,” Brown said. “If Trump makes it clear that he anoints a particular candidate, it’s going to be difficult to defeat that candidate in a Republican primary.”

Trump promotes the idea of his endorsement being the golden ticket to election victory. Banned from most social media, Trump has issued press releases touting his endorsements of several Republican candidates so far this year. He also vows to exact revenge by backing challengers to any incumbents he deems disloyal.

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A Trump adviser said the former president hasn’t yet made an endorsement decision but also noted that Brooks has been a strong ally – Brooks was the first member of Congress to announce he’d challenge the counting of Electoral College votes for President Joe Biden before the armed insurrection.

The Brooks campaign said it expects most of Trump’s inner circle will back him – and that Trump wouldn’t allow it if he also weren’t supportive. Brooks, 66, came in third in the Republican primary for the Senate in 2017.

Trump spoke at Blanchard’s Mar-a-Lago fundraiser, and while he didn’t endorse her, pictures of her and the former president appeared in local Alabama newspapers.

Other Republican candidates considering the race include Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill and Katie Boyd Britt, president and chief executive of the Business Council of Alabama and Shelby’s former chief of staff.

Former Senator Doug Jones, the last Democrat elected to the Senate from Alabama since 1992, said he doesn’t plan to seek Shelby’s seat. U.S. Representative Terri Sewell, a Democrat, has said she’s considering it.

Blanchard, 61, introduced herself in the video announcing her candidacy as “a proud member” of the Make America Great Again movement who’s “grateful for the leadership and courage of our 45th president, Donald Trump,” and she said she never thought about serving in public office until Trump appointed her ambassador to Slovenia, the home country of former first lady Melania Trump.

A co-founder of the real estate investment management company B&M Management, Blanchard has said she’s making an initial $5 million deposit in her campaign to ensure she has adequate resources for the race.

Voters will be looking for someone who reflects Trump’s policies and can continue his agenda, and Blanchard has shown the ability to do that, spokesman Ethan Zorfas said. In her announcement video, Blanchard calls herself a “true outsider” and decries “career politicians” – a nod to the fact Brooks has served since 1982 as a state legislator, a county commissioner, and for five terms in Congress.

But Trump is taking stock of who he believes stood with him at he end of his term and who didn’t, and Brooks’ role on Jan. 6 could be a mark in his favor.

Alabama Republican consultant Angi Horn downplayed the significance of a Trump endorsement in a race next year, and said she expects the race to be decided by policy differences among the conservative candidates.

Horn also noted that Alabama Senate candidates Luther Strange and Roy Moore both lost races in 2017 despite Trump’s endorsement, though Tommy Tuberville won last year with Trump’s backing.

“Alabama voters don’t usually do really well being told who to vote for,” Horn said.